An Open Letter to Teachers

Here in my neck of the woods, it’s the weekend before the start of classes. At my house, life got frantic this week as my wife, a high school language arts teacher, returned to work.

It’s about to get really busy if you are at all involved in education. As you gear up in whatever way that you do, I selfishly wanted to jot down a few reminders that I’d be telling myself if I were about to get started.

First. I hope you take lots of risks for the sake of learning this year. Not just for your students, but also for you. Make it a goal to try to learn something in a sustained and meaningful way that has little to do with your classroom life. I’ve been trying to learn photography this year, and while I’m nowhere close to proficient, it has been helpful to be in the mindset of a learner who’s struggling. That’s how many of our students feel everyday.

It doesn’t have to be a big risk that you always take – take little ones, too. Ask the question that you’re hesitant to ask. Share the writing you’re doing with your students. Volunteer to do the silly dance at the assembly. Just challenge yourself a little bit every now and then. We rise to the challenge when we’re pushed. But it’s easy to forget to reach.

Try very hard not to work all the time. I suck at this, at turning off my work brain and focusing on being a dad or a husband or “just a dude reading the paper at the corner coffee shop,” but I recognize the value of being at rest and at play, of knowing that it’s better to let small work things go in the name of preserving long term relationships. You CAN be that hero teacher that everyone loves and is in awe of, but only for a little while. Then, you burn out and fade away and don’t do anyone any good at all.

You need no one’s permission to postpone a due date or modify an assignment for the benefit of a student, or to delay some grading for the benefit of yourself or your family. All will be right with the world if you’re a day late, so long as you had a reason.

Be an expert when you need to be. Be a learner always. You are probably the most experienced learner in your classroom. But don’t assume you’re the most knowledgable person or object. If you’ve a computer handy, then you’re not. Embrace that. Relationships and mentoring cannot be outsourced or Googled. They take time and genuine concern.

Model always what you want your students to do. You and your behaviors and habits, no matter how much you might wish otherwise, are a curriculum of sorts, perhaps THE curriculum.

Be humble, but fight like crazy for your students.

Have at all times, as Geoff Powell says, “a healthy respect for young people.”

Work on your crap detector. Teach your students to develop theirs. Read and write lots. Let your students make meaningful choices in their learning. Hold them accountable for the choices they make, good or bad.

And share the good stuff. Your stories are all human ones, and they are all special, just as each one of you, and each of your students, is special. There is always someone curious about what you’re up to.

You’ll have nervous days and scared days and failure days. But you’ll also have “yes” days. Write about, reflect upon, and learn from all of them, but build a special place to keep a record of the “yes” ones. Return to it when you need a boost on some of the not-so-good days.

I wish you well. I ask you to be brave and humble and kind and tenacious and wise and caring and gentle and fierce. We so need you to do well. And there are lots of folks out there who want to help. Do good stuff.

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Quotes from Patri

At the recommendation of Gary Stager and Chris Lehmann, one of my summer reads is A Schoolmaster of the Great City by Angelo Patri.  Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. The book was written by Patri in 1917. It rings true, though, with much of what I worry about in our schools today. Patri faced the same problems and shares many of my passions. That’s both troublesome and reassuring.  I’ll be seeking out more of his work.  In the meantime, here are some of the lines that jumped out at me as I read today:

  • The antagonism between the children and teachers was far stronger than I had ever seen it before. The antagonism between the school and the neighborhood was intense. Both came from mutual distrust founded on mutual misunderstanding. The children were afraid of the teachers, and the teachers feared the children. (p. 14)
  • As each day went by, cautiously I put the problem of school discipline before them and they responded by taking over much of the responsibility for it themselves. (p. 15)
  • In this restless, uncertain sea of motion, noise, color and goings; of constant goings upstairs and downstairs, one learned to ‘go slow’ and watch and wait for his opportunity. (p. 19)
  • The rod idea was at work. Books, benches, crowded rooms, sitting still, listening; talking only when called upon to recite, teaching where the teachers did the thinking; these conditions have meant and always will mean an imposed discipline, an imposed routine, whereas real discipline is a personal thing, a part of the understanding soul. To replace discipline of teacher-responsibility by the discipline of child-responsibility is a long, slow process. (p. 27)
  • It was difficult to get teachers away from subject matter, from machinery, and toward children. How could it be otherwise? (p.30)
  • I wanted ideas  expressed in color, movement, fun and not lines, ideas and not perfect papers, every one alike . .  .  . I wanted nature that would make the child’s heart warm with sympathy .  .  .that would make him laugh to feel the snow and the rain and the wind beating on his face. (p. 30)
  • The feeling for the things that I wanted was rather more definite than the knowledge of how to attain the desired results. (p. 30)(Karl – that quote was just for you.  We all get stuck.)
  • (On teaching robins) ‘Suppose you meet the class under the big oak tree in the morning and look for robins. Watch them until you and the children know as much about them as one can learn by looking  .  .  .  . Then talk over what you’ve seen and learned. Let everybody say his say sometime or other.  .  .  . Then when you have all the facts about him select those that are most worthwhile, and present them as the robin story.  You’ll find you’ll need very little drill.’ (p. 32)
  • I felt that we had to win the parents as well as the taechers if the changes we were making, our emphasis on the ‘fads and frills’ of education, were to be accepted in the homes. (p. 33)
  • Many parents believe that this is education. .  .  . They fear freedom, they fear to let the child grow by himself. (p. 37)
  • I wanted opportunity for the masses, the best schools for the crowds, the best teachers for the heaviest load.  I thought in terms of service, they in terms of tradition. (p. 41)

Plenty more good stuff within.  I’d encourage you to read the book.

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Goal #1 – Build Community

Goal:  Work to build multiple and overlapping communities of learners in our district who have knowledge, expertise and/or interest in the hardware and software and services that our district is supporting.  Help those communities to begin to learn from each other and to support each other in their teaching and learning.  As best as I can, document and share the learning and stories of the community.

I’m aware of so much potential in our classrooms and schools, and so many new tools that are coming online in the district that can be used to help students and teachers create deep and meaningful opportunities for learning and reflection in our classrooms.  These are tools like laptops (three new elementary schools, opening in the fall, will have laptops for every teacher; many more schools are investing in laptops for some teachers to be used with) interactive whiteboards, and/or clickers and document cameras, software like ActivStudio, which we’re trying to standardize on across the district, and services like Moodle, which powers our St. Vrain Virtual Campus.

There are a multitude of projects and programs that already meet and discuss some of these issues – but there’s nowhere to go to see all of those conversations, or for folks who aren’t already connected to those groups to have the opportunity to find ways into the conversations.  I also know that, with so many resources out there, we need to do a good job of aggregating all of that stuff somewhere (or somewheres) and then helping people to find that space.

Also, if we can work to build and/or sustain these communities, we can work to develop leadership on instructional issues in our district.  Better yet, we can help teachers to teach teachers.  That’s a good thing. I believe very strongly that the answers to most of the important questions facing schools and teachers and learning and students aren’t going to come out of school districts – they’re going to come out of classrooms.  It’s my job to help get the stories out there and the people connected.

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WiP#0 – Talking ’bout Thinking ’bout Linking

At the risk of getting a little too meta, I’m going to be talking through my history of thinking about linking, or conective writing, today during CyberCamp as a part of our series of “Works in Progress” conversations.  I’m inviting you, if you’re interested, mostly to help me model how a backchannel and uStream conversation can be of value to a face to face group, but selfishly, too, because I’m always interested in how others are thinking about these ideas.  So, if you’re willing and able, join us at around 11:30am MST for a short uStream presentation.  All the details are on our wiki.  

Thanks in advance!

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Web Presence. On Purpose.

I’m writing this morning from the National Writing Project’s web presence working retreat, an event I’ve been fortunate enough to have been involved with as a facilitator since its inception last year.  This is the second time we’ve run the event, which is an attempt to provide some time and structure for teams from writing project sites who wish to think strategically about their web presence.  We’ll spend the weekend thinking through the identity of our respective organizations and what we can do online to both reflect and support that identity and the good work that all of us are trying to do in our various locations around writing and teaching and learning. That means lots of things to lots of people, but there’s plenty of intersection in the general trends.

The event is pretty intense, and, while designed for sites to think about their organizational web presences, is very helpful to me as I think about my personal and professional life online.  One of the big questions that we’re asking people to think about is how their web presences are a reflection of and a lens into their work.  My personal web presence should be like that, too.  But I’m not sure that it is.  I’ve got content spread around the web in a variety of places, everywhere from Flickr to Twitter to this blog to my wiki (which is desperately in need of an update or seven) to my work with other groups and schools and people.  There’s plenty of personal mixed in with the professional, and I think the boundaries between those two areas of my life, never truly separate in “real, offline” life, continue to blur and fade and shift from day to day, week to week, month to year.  (That’s a good thing, I think, for the most part.) How do I, as a blogger and a teacher and a learner and a father and a husband and a citizen, do my best to ensure a consistent presence across the Internet that reflects what I believe to be important?  Just as essential – how do I bring all of that content that sits all over the place into some sort of a coherent whole?  Or do I need to, so long as all that content in all of those places, and others, reflects the message(s) that I want so desperately to convey – that learning and writing and thinking and engaging and passionately working for the benefit of others are essential habits and skills for everyone, regardless of background, culture, or profession?

I think, too, about what “web presence” means.  Having a presence and creating a presence are not necessarily the same thing.  Being and doing aren’t necessarily the same, either.

These are some of my thoughts as I head into a pretty intensive planning process, where, if last year is any indication, I’ll learn as much, and probably a great deal more, than I’m hoping to facilitate.  This summer, I’ll be doing a three-hour session on presence tools, a class of software that are about making one’s presence known in some formal and informal ways, Twitter being one of the tools that I’m most curious about at the moment.  I also would like to explore more about digital identity, a conversation I sort of started here a little while back.  My work this weekend will continue to influence that work.  Lots to learn.  Luckily, I’ve got plenty of smart folks here to learn from and with.  We should all be so lucky.

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Time for a New Button?


I read banned books

Originally uploaded by Bud the Teacher

I wonder if there’s a button with the slogan “I surf an unfiltered Internet,” or “I read filtered blogs.” Maybe “I read blocked blogs,” is better – more alliterative.

Along another line, perhaps a button with the message “I’d trust my kids in Al Upton’s classroom,” would be a good slogan, too.
Any graphic artists out there? I’ll buy in bulk.

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(Re)Creating Ourselves Online

The Reflective Teacher, one of my favorite reflective practitioners, left his blog behind recently.  But now he’s back with another:

Anyway, I figured it was time for a reinvention as a teacher. I see in myself a different person than I was when I became a teacher, and therefore have moved things over to another place. What’s here will be erased but not forgotten. This place is invaluable to me, but I must let it go.

The kids always call me “Mister,” and when they address me, it’s as “hey, mister.” Therefore, you’ll find me at heymister.

Worth subscribing.

As a complete aside, I find the decisions that folks make about what’s public and what’s private, and how they create (or recreate) and negotiate their digital identities completely fascinating.  The rhetorical and practical decisions that go into everything from creating a screenname to deciding what and where to post are really interesting.

I’d love to facilitate a roundtable or panel discussion about this at some point in the future.  Lots worth exploring.  And, of course, for those of you who blog anonymously (which I can understand but not quite condone), we’ll provide brown paper bags and electronic voice scrambling.  Or something like that.

Would you attend such a conversation?

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Missing YA Literature

One of the frustrating bits about working in technology rather than in language arts for the last ten months is that I haven’t really had a good reason to keep up on all the great YA literature out there.  I’m not in a position to recommend books to students at the moment – so I’ve gotten a little bit out of touch with the YA world.  I was reminded of this this morning when Phil tweeted that he was headed off to a teen literature conference. I love going into the libraries in our schools and spending time with the displays of new and popular books.

But I really miss book talks with students. Those conversations in front of bookshelves where we try to match their interests with the right book or books are wicked intense and always a fun challenge.  Talk about a rush.

While I can’t necessarily meet my need to talk books with teens at the moment, I can at least catch up on my reading.  I happen to have a book store gift card and a desire to make a donation to a school library (after I read the book, of course).

So, dear readers and teachers of reading, what should I purchase?  I’m looking for something newish – the last six months or so – and I’m aware of Twilight and the Uglies.  I’d love something a little unconventional, perhaps ARG-ish (And I know that the sequel to Cathy’s Book, Cathy’s Key, comes out in May – so I’ll be getting my hands on a copy of that, too, I hope.), or a good graphic novel (I really enjoyed the Invention of Hugo Cabret, as did the students I shared it with.).

Please share your recommendations.  What are you reading with students?  To them? For you?  Can’t keep on the shelves?  Wish you had a copy or two of?  I’ll buy the book that I like the best and tell you how it goes.  Thanks!

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